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Art Chenoweth

There is a big dispute going on in New York over a sculpture project, a dispute that could have significance for Portland State, though hopefully not.

It seems amid all the dust and rubble of the Sept. 11 terrorist debacle, some firemen hoisted an American flag. They did this as a symbol of American defiance of the terrorists. It became a statement that the United States survives and remains strong, despite the efforts of terrorists to prove otherwise. Now New York proposes to immortalize this moment with a statue of the heroic flag-raising. Public sentiment seems vigorously in favor of such a statue.

But wait! Certain other elements have made revisionist demands. All the firemen who raised the flag were white. If there is to be a statue, they say, we have to have one of the firemen become black.

You can imagine the firestorm over this. The historical purists say this was an actual event in history. To depict it falsely makes it a fake. The other side counters that, after all, there were heroic black firemen working in the disaster too. Leaving them off the statue amounts to rampant racism. Besides, the statue doesn’t have to be considered exact history. It can be symbolic of the heroic efforts of all firefighters during the disaster.

Now, I have heard, the Hispanics are demanding that a Latino figure also be added to the statue. Just last Sunday, my youngest daughter told me the statue has become a topic of dispute on radio talk shows. People are talking about further concessions to diversity. They might include a woman in a wheelchair, they say, and a blind man with a dog. I predict if the statue ever gets built, it will include an American Indian, an Asian, an East Indian, a Polynesian, an Arab, an Eskimo and a Turk, as a minimum. There will be so many different fingers reaching for that flag some will find it tough to get a handhold. The blind man, especially, will have to grope his way.

Lately, we’re getting more and more of this kind of dispute. I hesitate to take sides, or even to decry “political correctness.” There’s a fine line there with cogent arguments on both sides. We have a recent similar example in Oregon. We lost something in Oregon history. No longer does a certain mountain in Oregon bear its historic name of Squaw Mountain. Squaw is considered a derogatory term by American Indians, and I agree. But I don’t agree that changing a historic name is right. I believe we need to be reminded that people in our past gave mountains names like Squaw Mountain. We need to recall that we have evolved beyond that kind of naming. I don’t like to see us changing history by sweeping it under the rug. I have resented this trend in revisionist history. But historians tell us every generation reinterprets history to suit its own preferences and prejudices.

Back to the statuary question. When it comes to figurative sculptures, thankfully, here at Portland State we have not become plagued by them. So far as I know, we have only one. It is Frederic Littman’s sculpture in the Park Blocks. We see Eurydice being jerked back to Hades by Pluto. Orpheus couldn’t resist looking back to ogle her as the two ascended from the underworld.

This statue, I have heard, is not considered some of Littman’s best work. I find it amusing. Littman’s Eurydice must have been an hermaphrodite. She has a basically female form. Yet she sports a six-pack of abdominals more sharply defined than I ever have seen on a female bodybuilder.

The closest figurative statue to our campus of an actual person is Teddy Roosevelt riding a horse somewhat north in the Park Blocks. Teddy evidently is leading his troops into battle in the Spanish-American war, one of the U.S. forays into imperialistic conquest. I prefer to think of Teddy as the inspiration for the teddy bear. I learned of this recently on a Paul Harvey radio broadcast of “The Rest of the Story.”

Teddy was out on a hunting trip when one of the party captured a bear cub and brought it back to camp “so everybody could shoot it.”

“Not so fast,” Teddy supposedly yelled. “We’re not going to shoot any helpless bear cub.” The cub went free and the teddy bear was born.

At Portland State we did have a modern abstract sculpture in the Park Blocks, but a few months ago it was tipped over by vandals. So, we remain almost sculpture deprived. In really recent years PSU began, as most universities do, to honor big donors by naming buildings in their honor, to wit, Peter Stott Center and Hoffman Hall. This remains the short-circuit path to relative immortality and I have no objection to it. It emphatically seems preferable to dumping some figurative statue in the middle of the Park Blocks.

Statues, in most cases, become lies made of stone. A famous statue of the great king, Charlemagne, shows him with a strong, erect body and a magnificent flowing beard. Actually, art experts say, another little figure of Charlemagne on horseback renders a more faithful image. Here we see him as a pot-bellied fat man with a walrus mustache.

Statues of actual people have been a fetish of power figures throughout history. The Roman emperors were infamous for knocking the heads off statues of their predecessors and substituting their own physiognomies. The entire world finds itself cluttered with these creations. Sometimes, however, figurative statues do create great artistic values. Michelangelo’s David and the sculptures on some of the Romanesque churches represent great examples of this. Yet, with the passage of time, even these can become the butts of comedy. One beautiful and famous Romanesque figure shows the three Magi together, sleeping in one bed. Contemporary comedians have shown this creation on television and hinted, with a smirk, that the three kings of Orient must have been gay.

It’s not that I oppose all figurative statues. I like the elk at Southwest Fourth Avenue and Main Street. I enjoy that modernistic cat in the Transit Mall. I also appreciate the naked lady on the mall with the flowing hair. Ex-Mayor Bud Clark became nationally famous by posing for a poster facing this statue with his topcoat held open. The printed legend said, “Expose yourself to art.” That’s the kind of light-hearted attitude I like to see about statuary. What I don’t care for is a heavy-handed dedication to preserving the identity of some temporary celebrity.

I have a definite preference to advocate for the New York memorial. If we can remember George Washington with a single obelisk, we can honor the New York firefighters with something similarly non-figurative.

The nation’s most honored memorial now is the Vietnam wall of names. Yet, when it was designed, certain veterans groups demanded a figurative statue of struggling warriors. The statue was installed nearby but nobody pays any attention to it today, they go to the beautiful and appropriate wall.

Something like that belongs in New York. Perhaps a two-tiered or two surface wall. One surface could list the names of all the dedicated firefighters, police and other service professionals who rallied to the disaster. The other tier could list all those who lost their lives. That, to me, could be a fitting memorial that would bypass all this diversity whining. New York should avoid some faked-up statuary with images of people who never were present at this one single isolated event, while honoring the thousands who were.